Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Greetings from the Valais.

The Canton Valais, or Kanton Wallis as it is referred to in German, is one of my favorite cantons in Switzerland. The Valais lies in the southwestern corner of Switzerland and forms the border with Italy and France. It is the home to more than 40 peaks topping 4,000 meters, and it’s also the resting place for the largest glacier in Western Europe, the Aletsch. Tourists flock to the Valais to see towns like Zermatt, and iconic mountains like the Matterhorn, but they soon find themselves helpless when cute little chalets draw them in with the warm smells of fondue and white wine. If melted cheese, big mountain scenery and traditional mountain culture characterize Switzerland, then some could easily call the Valais a Swiss poster child. It is no coincidence that three of our signature hiking tours, the Hiker’s Haute Route, the Tour du Mont Blanc, and Secret Swiss Valleys, all traverse this region of Switzerland. The Matterhorn Trek also finishes here.

Twenty-six individual cantons now make up the country of Switzerland, but these cantons once existed as sovereign states with their own economies, armies, languages and cultures. Today, traveling through this cultural patchwork still offers a delightful insight into the Alpine world as it existed centuries ago, but communicating can be a confusing affair without a bit of prior knowledge or investigation.

The first time that I ever visited the Valais, a woman greeted me in French. As a student living in France at the time, I excitedly welcomed the opportunity to prove my new level of French proficiency. However, when I responded in French she proceeded to continue our conversation in German, of which I knew virtually nothing at the time. When I politely thanked her in German, she immediately reverted to French and exited the conversation with, "Merci et au revoir."

While many of the cantons recognize one language predominately, a few of them, like the Valais, still recognize multiple languages. In the case of the Valais, the official languages are German and French. And while it is not necessary to know French or German in order to enjoy a great vacation in this corner of the world, a general understanding of the basic greetings will make for a very enjoyable and rewarding experience.

What follows are a few of the most common greetings used on the hiking trails in the Valais. Please note: There are no hard and fast rules dictating that you must use a German greeting in the German speaking part of the Valais. It is nice to think however, that using a native greeting offers respect to the culture and the landscape through which we pass.

To say hello on the trail:
Bonjour. (French) This works very well as a catch all French greeting.
Guten Tag. (German) This literally means “good day.’ This is a formal German greeting that works much like Bonjour.
Greuzi. (Swiss German) This is a uniquely Swiss “hello” and one of my favorites.
Grüß Gott. (Southern German) Pronounced, Groose Scott, this is another one of my favorites and very popular along the hiking trail.
Hallo. This also works very well in all parts.
In general, two hikers passing each other along the trail will make eye contact and then each will say one of the above greetings. That’s usually where the conversation ends.

Example:
“Grüß Gott!”
“Grüß Gott!”

The second hiker will often follow the lead of the first, but not always.
Occasionally a conversation ensues; laughter follows, and the hikers part ways. What follows are a few ways to say goodbye.

Au revoir. (French)
Auf wiedersehen. (German)
Tschüs-(German) This means “bye” or “see you” and is extremely informal. Use this only between friends or people that already know each other. I use it only with friends or if somebody uses it with me first.

You may also want to thank the other person for one reason or another.
Merci. (French)
Danke. (German)

Note: Merci is a strange exception to the rule. It is a common thank you in both the French and German speaking parts of the Valais. Grocery store clerks for example, might carry on an entire conversation in German but they’ll almost always say “merci” when thanking a patron at the end of the dialogue.

Extra Credit:
Since the Valais shares its southern border with Italy, it is only fair to include Italian greetings as well. Hikers on the Tour du Mont Blanc would do well to add these to their quiver.

Hello:
Buon giorno. This is the equivalent of Bonjour or Guten Tag. Conservative speakers should use this when in doubt.
Ciao. This is less formal but very popular with younge people and friends.
Salve. Pronounced, Sal-veh. This also means hello.

Good bye:

Arrivederci. (More formal) Most people use this.
Ciao. (Less formal) This is also very popular.

Thank you:
Grazie.
Grazie mille. (Thanks a lot).

One final note: How will you know which language to use on the trail? That’s easy. Use French or Italian when hiking in or out of France or Italy. When in Switzerland, let someone else say hello and then follow along. Proceed with confidence once you’ve identified the most common greeting.

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